The highway entering New Orleans soars above Bayou swamp. Cars woosh past mile upon mile of boggy land and houses perched on stilts ready to withstand the rising levels of the Mississippi. Making our way through the Garden District of New Orleans, street cars trundled up and down making their distinctive ‘click, click, pop’ and the boughs of old oaks heaved under brightly coloured, Mardi Gras beads flung in the air during carnival season (which seems to be all the time!)
The Columns Hotel, our base for next 3 days, is the only lasting Italinate-style mansion along Charles Avenue designed by Thomas Sully in 1883. Built for Simon Hernshiem, owner of Hernshiem & Brothers Co. the largest cigar manufacturer in the states at the time – think Gone with the Wind and you’ve got a pretty close idea! As soft tones of live lounge jazz waft through the air, we enjoyed a ‘Streetcar Spritzer’ on the front porch and felt like we’d walked in to the pages of Fitzgerald novel.
New Orleans certainly felt like the most European town we visited, mixing a penchant for ironwork balconies and street cafés with a vibrant creole, Cajun Caribbean streak. Lonely Planet describes it both ‘of America and extraordinarily removed’. Founded in 1718, Nouvelle Orleans was largely settled by French, Canadians and Germans but it was the Spanish who built much of the French Quarter as we know it. Yet it was the French who imported a large numbers of slaves, making NOLA a central port to the industry. And it was local laws that allowed slaves to earn their freedom as a member of in the creole community – as ‘free people of colour’. It’s that large black influence that cemented NOLAs voodoo, mystical culture and Mardi Gras celebrations.
Jackson Square lies at the heart of the French Quarter. Walled with psychedelic paintings hanging from the park’s railings, fortune tellers mingle with street performers. We sat in Cafe du monde a 24hour social station hoarding in tourists and locals serving hot beignets and chicory cafe au lait. St Louis Cathedral dominates the park, designed by Gilberto Guillemard, this is one of America finest examples of French ecumenical architecture.
Through it all the Mississippi rushes to meet the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. One solitary steamboat, the Natchez, still chugs it’s way along the river in time to Paul Robeson’s ‘Old Man River’. Tom and I enjoyed the finest creole spinach and bread pudding on board, before watching the sun go down over the horizon from the deck and sweet rhythmic tones of double bass in the background.